Thursday, January 7, 2010

Manohra Thai (Sydney)

227 Bondi Rd, Bondi
Sydney, Australia 2026
ph +61 2 9300 0257

It was one of those time-travelling moments: feeling utterly transported back three and a half years in time. I was in Bondi, shivering in my shorts and Havianas as the rain bucketed down. A friend had cancelled our dinner plans, her work day abruptly ending in a hospital waiting room. The shops at Westfield had closed, and I was left standing on the street, wondering what to do next. 

Three and a half years earlier, we’d been living in Bondi. Usually, rainy nights back then ended at our little flat on Imperial Avenue, halfway between the shops and the beach, DVDs and takeaway Thai in hand. Now, our Imperial flat long given up and passed on to fresh renteurs and our temporary dwellings at least an hour’s train ride away, we had no easily-reached abode to hurry back to.

But we did have the Thai.

Our favourite Thai joint, one of Bondi’s many, was conveniently located at the end of our street on Bondi Road: but no one should be fooled by its seemingly prosaic exterior and location. Manohra Thai might appear to be another humble and cheap suburban Thai BYO, but its shopfront belies the awesomeness within. Forget the old over-sweetened, over-creamy traditional Sydney Thai stalwarts, Manohra’s dishes have a lighter, fresher and altogether tastier touch. The first thing I ever tried there, chicken with mint, was a jaw-dropping revelation: tender bits of chicken with sliced vegetables in a thin sauce that was sweet, salty, fishy, citrusy and spicy, in perfect balance. 

Manohra had actually been on my initial “things to do in Sydney” wishlist for this trip to Australia, but I’d crossed it out, thinking that it was too big an ask, too far a distance to travel, for just four days in the city while staying way out in the suburbs. So when it was suggested, while shivering under the awning outside Borders, it didn’t take long to jump on the next 380 down Bondi Road.

After a quick stop at Kemeny’s to get a bottle of their Hidden Label cab sav ($12) we walked the two blocks down the hill, past the Fruitologist, past Wellington Cake Shop, past that horrifically overpriced Pilates studio that charges the rich Bondi women $70 per class. And there is Manohra Thai: still with the same flocked gold wallpaper, low lighting and blondwood chairs as were there three years ago. (Actually it was renovated around that time: a restaurant with food as good as Manohra’s will never be allowed to get shabby.) 

We began, as always, with the moneybags: four crisp, straight out of the deep fryer, little parcels of sweet chicken mince inside a golden fried wonton casing. They were served with a sweet chilli sauce for dipping; this visit the combination was a little too cloyingly sweet for my tastes, but in the past the filling has been lighter and more savoury and the sauce a little less sticky. Still, the crunch factor of the fanned fried wrapper can’t ever be beat.

Mains are a tough one as we have so many favourites. There’s the Crying Tiger, perenially chalked up on the specials board, which is my dining partner’s all-time top. I remember it as a sliced bit of tender beef fillet doused in a watery, fresh, herby and fiery chilli sauce. Then there’s the prawn soup, served in a hollowed-out coconut, with whole prawns sitting in a coconut, lime and lemongrass broth, which is sweeter than you’d expect and so more-ish my mother once famously tried to spoon-feed it to everyone at the table. 

My top pick was always chicken stir-fried with cashews and chili jam, also available with tofu instead of chicken, a deliciously spicy-sweet sauce with vegetables and, pleasingly, not light on the nuts.

But this visit we went with the barbeque duck and the chicken with basil, plus rice for one (enough for two):

The crisp lacquered duck, one of three duck dishes on the menu (there’s also a roast duck salad and a duck curry), was chopped Chinese-style and served on a bed of wilted greens, still raw enough to cut through the fatty ducky juices dripping from the meat. 

The chicken with basil, another takeaway stalwart, was just as I’d remembered: spicy, sweet, lemongrassy and bursting with fresh flavours and crunchy vegetables. The amount of chicken appears to have reduced somewhat since our last visit, but otherwise faultless.

Desserts here are, as with most Asian restaurants, a bit ho-hum: there’s sticky rice with Thai custard which is appealing, but this time I demurred, as it’s not the black sticky rice I love.

After the meal, despite the trek up the hill to the station, the rain and spiky ocean winds didn't seem quite so bad. The warm Manohra afterglow was good enough fortification to last all the way home.


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